Monday, February 25, 2013

Touching My Father's Soul: A Balanced Account of Everest

I absolutely loved Jamling Tenzing Norgay's Touching My Father's Soul.  It deviated wonderfully from the accounts that we have read so far about mountain climbing and arctic expeditions.  While each author had personal reasons for pursuing his/her climb or expedition, Norgay's account was the only truly personal one we have read.  Herzog, Blum, and even Bancroft focuses primarily on the facts of their expeditions - how they successfully climbed the mountains or crossed Antarctica - Norgay focuses upon what Everest meant to him personally.

Norgay admits that his interest in Everest and his desire to reach the summit comes, at least in part, from personal and familial pride:

Ever since I was a boy I had heard stories of my father's historic climb of Everest with Edmund Hilary in 1953.  I had always wanted to join my father on the summit.  When I became an adult, and after my father's death, my desire to climb Everest only intensified.  I wanted to preserve the family name, which was being eclipsed by a new era of climbing.  My father and Hilary's first ascent was approaching the limits of living people's memories (6).

Norgay, then, wants to climb Everest in 1996 to protect his father's reputation.  In short, he wants to ensure his father retains his place in history, which seems strange considering the fact that the 1953 expedition is still clearly celebrated 50 years later.  Norgay reports, "Even a half century after their climb, when I pass through immigration in Nepal or India - a generally demeaning experience - if I simply mention my name or speak about my father, some officers practically salute me.  Gravely serious bureaucrats get a twinkle in their eye and respond with curiosity and wonder" (285-286).  Clearly, Tenzing's reputation remains strong and does not need any help or protection by his son.  This reinforces the strength and importance of his personal motivation for climbing Everest: to learn more about his father and to establish a connection with him that he felt he lacked during his father's lifetime. "I was driven primarily," Norgay writes, "by a need for understanding.  I felt that only by following my father up the mountain, by standing where he had stood, by climbing where he had climbed, could I truly learn about him" (21).

Norgay's desire to climb Everest becomes a personal quest to understand himself by learning more about his father.  His account continually stresses this motivation, that the climb is a learning experience: "I had to learn what it was that had driven my father and what he had found on the mountain" (6).  He wants to discover the verity and truth behind his father's words: "'You can't see the entire world from the top of Everest, Jamling.  the view from there only reminds you how big the world is and how much more there is to see and learn'" (8).  Norgay clearly takes these words to heart, as Everest literally and figuratively expands his horizons.  It allows him to explore the Buddhist faith of his  parents and to reestablish a connection to it, especially to his father's personal deity: Miyolangsangma.  Finally, and most importantly, he learns to understand his father and establishes the relationship with him that he did not have during his father's lifetime.  Everest becomes the spiritual and physical link to his father: "Standing there on the summit, I felt I was touching his soul, his mind, his destiny, and his dreams.  And I had received his blessings and approval" (256).

The intensely personal nature of Norgay's expedition, and the more balanced view of the mountain that it gives him, gained my respect and made his book an enjoyable read.  Thanks to his desire to connect with his father, Everest "changed from a lifeless, uncaring, and dangerous mound of rock - a rock that had with indifference taken the lives of so many - into a warm, friendly, and life-sustaining being" (256).  Thus, Norgay can appreciate reaching the summit of Everest on a deeper level than other climbers - he spends two hours on the summit in sharp contrast to Herzog, the members of Blum's expedition, and Krakauer - and knows that he must be grateful for his accomplishment (257).  If I were going to climb Everest, I would want to do so with Norgay.  

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